Bad news for old school papers

The troubles of traditional print newspapers, including those in major metropolitan areas, is well documented – with news consumers moving toward online sources, advertisers are less likely to buy space in printed periodicals.  Unfortunately for most news organizations, it turns out that the advertisers are not moving online along with the readers – even though online advertising spending continues to rise.  If you consider the way ads are displayed on newspaper websites, and internet advertising models, it makes sense.

Back when print advertising was all the rage – in the olden times before 1997 or so – the model for effective advertising was fairly simple: you bought space in a publication that matched your target demographic.  If you were a Boston-based business, for instance, that meant advertising in the Boston Globe or the Herald.  It was expensive, but you were paying for exposure – the more pairs of eyes would look at your ads, the more customers you would get at the other end of the funnel. When you paid your advertising dollars, you paid for exposure.

Online advertising has changed that model in every way imaginable, especially search advertising.  When you buy search ads today on Google or Bing, you pay based on how many people click on your ads.  That creates an extra incentive for the search engine folks to put your text ads in places where people are most likely to click.  With search advertising, you are paying not for how many people see your ad, but for how many people actually show interest.

So, why aren’t newspapers able to capture those online advertising dollars?  To illustrate their problems, let’s use the Boston Globe – a paper which has had very public issues adapting to the new world of news.  If you visit the Boston Globe and search for my alma mater, UMass, one of the first stories you get is about UMass angling to open their own law school.  Check out what the page looks like:


Note the three ads – a banner across the top, a box in the right column, and a tower ad running down the right side a little ways down the page.  The banner and tower in this image are for Roadrunner Sports, and as near as I can tell they rotate.  The big, blue Air France rectangle, though, is all over the Boston Globe’s site today.  That probably means Air France bought a high level of visibility – in other words, they bought ads online the same they would have in the print version of the Globe.

But here’s a pertinent question: why would someone be reading this story?  What does that indicate about their interests?  Air travel seems like an odd fit for a story like this, which one might read if he or she is researching law schools or is a UMass alum.

To contrast, here’s what I found when  searching for “UMass” on Google:


Along the right side are two simple text ads for one of UMass’s satellite campuses and – the Priceline ad trumpeting their ability to find good hotel deals in and around Amherst.  What’s more, the ads look much like the search results – with the search term showing up in bold.  If you are searching for “UMass” because you are looking to further your education or visit your alma mater, these ads are up your alley; if not, the companies that bough the ads lose nothing because they only pay if you click.

While the search ad model anticipates the user’s possible interests and serves ads based on that, newspapers and the ad networks through which they work too often continue to display the ads that they want the user to see – even online.  Why would anyone pay for eyeballs when they could pay for the whole brain?

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